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Intuition and Making Decisions in Interviews

Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

Interviewing candidates is part of almost every hiring process, which can also include the use of assessment(s), references, letters of recommendation, social media scans, and more. The other elements are used fairly consistently, yet the interview process can vary widely.

An interviewing process that we know does not work:

In study after study, talent decisions based on a 55-minute interview standard are poor, and costly hiring and staffing mistakes are common.

Research has also documented that interview training increases accuracy, but many line interviewers resist being scheduled due to being “too busy”. So, increasing desired outcomes from interviews means conducting these differently.

The interviews led by untrained, uninformed, terminally busy managers and leaders are the worst. We have regularly witnessed an executive assistant communicating that an interviewee has arrived.  The executive quickly reviews the background provided and then has a casual conversation which might include a range of topics not related to the role.

What we know works

Science-backed, experience-tested, and practitioner-verified interviewing takes preparation. It takes time.  First, there needs to be a Success Profile created–the detailed requirements for success. It clearly defines the set of KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, and Attributes) needed to be effective in the position and what’s needed to get along with others and to work for the values and mission of the organization.  Then, a pre-determined set of questions aligned to the KSA profile and cultural alignment must be assembled.  Finally, interviewers must have learned the skills needed to conduct an objective and effective interview.

Interviewing errors and fixed

Backing up, let’s look at common interviewing errors and fixes in and for the casual interview.

Work in the 1950s specific to decision-making during interviewing showed that 75%+ of untrained interviewers made up their minds on the candidate within the first 3 minutes.  That internal decision then determined how the interview progressed.  If leaning toward “yes”, the interviewer shifted into a “sell the candidate on the opportunity” mode and asked easier questions.  If “no”, the questions were tougher and more challenging, and the interviewer talked less.

Those findings have been confirmed over the years and have remained essentially the same for decades¹. Why does this happen? 

It’s the brain’s fault

The brain has predictable behavioral patterns. Part of the brain is charged with threat detection for things such as snakes, bats, bees, and the dark, but also for people.  People can be helpful, neutral, or harmful.  With no prompting from its owner, the brain automatically scans people within a close distance and, with intuition and knowledge of past experiences, categorizes them into good, bad, or don’t know.  That decision is forwarded to the awake, thinking part of the brain for consideration and guidance.


Intuition is a varied gift. It is a “gut feeling” or instinctive understanding of something without needing to think it through logically. It’s that sense you get about a situation or decision, even if you can’t explain why you feel that way. It’s like having a hunch based on past experiences or feelings, guiding you without conscious effort.

Intuition has a good side.  In an interview, it creates a first impression, but where does that come from?  It’s a collection of lifelong experiences summarized into general situations and categories or rules.

We can react to the way people dress for an interview, whether they’ve researched you and/or the position. We might interpret that the candidate will be more productive in the job based on these planful preparations. Social skills in the interview might be seen as correlated to collaboration. You see where this is going.

It’s important to note that intuition is not always accurate and can be influenced by various dark factors such as biases, emotions, and context.

Intuition’s downside: If you have a brain, you have bias

We all have implicit biases, we all try to navigate noise and, to a degree, almost all of us lack depth of needed experience. 

Implicit bias in interview-oriented decision-making refers to pre-existing, unconscious (generally not available to the aware thinking brain) thoughts or feelings that affect first impressions and final decisions about job candidates. (Search online for “the SEEDS Model” specific to unconscious bias). These hidden biases can make interviewers prefer certain candidates without realizing it, and reject others based on factors like race, gender, or dissimilarity to themselves. So, tattoos, attire, accent, body shape, and the first three-minute verbal and non-verbal behaviors can affect interview outcomes, which can include unfair and undefendable decisions about the treatment of candidates and our ultimate decisions.  

And, people who have and allow these implicit biases to cloud their judgment often deny that they do.

It’s about Noise

Noise is the natural fallibility in human decision-making. Daniel Kahneman and associates define “noise” in interview decision-making as “any irrelevant or random variability that interferes with the rationality or consistency of the decision-making process and the accuracy of the resulting decision”. In their view, noise can arise from various sources such as cognitive biases, inconsistent judgment, or external factors beyond one’s control. It can lead to inconsistent decisions in similar or identical situations, reducing the effectiveness and efficiency of decision-making processes.

Kahneman emphasizes the importance of reducing random noise through standardization, pre-work, calibration, and careful consideration of relevant information. This improves decision-making outcomes.

Getting it right, more often

The quality of guidance coming from intuition is directly related to the sample size and diversity of experience before the interview.  How many interviews have you done?  Have you tracked the accuracy of your decisions?  Can you discipline your mind to be open and not be unduly impacted by implicit biases and noise?  Can/will you reference a bias model as a decision-making checklist?

To have the quality of intuition about how plants in the jungle can heal various conditions, you would have had to have a large sample of successes and failures for you and your patients to rely on your intuition.

It follows then, that to allow your intuition about a specific foreign candidate’s qualifications for a job to have an impact on your decision, you would have to have had a large sample of exposure and extensive education about that culture and people from it.

So, when intuition categorizes a candidate early in the interview, confirmation bias gets activated. The brain, independent of your awake thinking, places a high value upon being proven right. While intuition can be a valuable tool for problem-solving and decision-making, it should be complemented by critical thinking and rational analysis.

Daniel Kahneman’s research says:

  1. Know what you are looking for.  Create a success or fit profile broken down into factors, characteristics, competencies, skills, and attributes.  What specifically is needed to perform well in this opportunity?
  2. With all the will you can muster, resist being influenced by an early impression.  Know and recognize your implicit biases. Be open to considering what noise could be in the way of a good decision.
  3. Interview separately for each KSA. 
  4. After the interview, document the Profile of your ratings of individual factors in your mind or on paper.
  5. Then, and only then, close your eyes and allow intuition to have a vote.

The research says there is a place for a general impression. In the beginning of the interview, it decreases accuracy.  Used at the end of the interview it increases accuracy as you have more reliable and valid data in your hands.

Interview everyone the same. Ask the same challenging questions designed to evaluate independent facts. Score and then reflect. Combine the data collected and what intuition has to say, and you’ll scientifically increase the accuracy of the interview process and decision.

¹Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (2021)by Daniel KahnemanOlivier Sibony, & Cass R. Sunstein.

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